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The most controversial Oscar nominee this year isn’t American Sniper. Nor is it Selma, the Oscar-snubbed Martin Luther King docudrama. If you were like me, you probably hadn’t even heard about the film. Chances are you likely will following this year’s Academy Awards. The documentary, nominated for an award in the Best Documentary category is titled, “CitizenFour”.

CitizenFour was the codename used by Edward Snowden when he reached out to award- winning documentarian, Laura Poitras. In the film, Snowden meets in secret with Poitras and reporter Greg Greenwald of The Guardian. Holed up together in a New York hotel room Snowden releases to them the classified documents that allegedly prove the U.S. government, through the National Security Administration (NSA), actively collects billions of our phone calls, email and text messages every hour of every day.

At times, “CitizenFour” plays out more like a tense cyber-thriller than a stark and unapologetic documentary. With codenames like “Stellar Wind” and talk of the spooky sounding “Presidential Policy Directive Number 20,” which according to the film is a kind of “Martial Law for cyber operations by the White House.” One can hardly believe they aren’t watching some kind of Orwellian science fiction tale.


For her part, Poitras asks only a few poignant questions throughout the film but otherwise lets the subject (Snowden) literally speak for himself.

In the film, Snowden very succinctly expresses why he felt he had to act, “We all have a stake in this, this is our country and the balance of power between the citizenry and the government is becoming that of the rulers and the ruled as opposed to the elected and the electorate” .

Like most of you, I don’t really have anything to hide. If the NSA wants to go through my e-mails and online records they would only uncover an extreme Star Wars and Game of Thrones geek. Still, it’s hard not to be a little creeped out when, according to CitizenFour, much of our fundamental freedom we take for granted in our country has been pretty much eradicated by the NSA’s electronic surveillance. Under these programs, anyone with a cellphone or e-mail account is under the watchful eye of Big Brother 24 hours a day.

Time magazine even went so far as to rank the film 8 out of 10 on its top ten movies of 2014 calling it,“ Halloween’s scariest chiller.”, referring to the film’s release last October.

What surprises most in “CitizenFour” is how Snowden, who at times comes across like the wormy little snitch he has been portrayed to be in much of the mainstream media, is careful to make sure the story doesn’t become about him. In a world where more news stories tend to be about personalities instead of news, that is impressive.

Snowden reveals that his motivation for coming forward with the documents stemmed from his growing unease and distrust with the U.S. government. Although most of the homeland surveillance programs were created during the previous administration, many of the programs have increased dramatically in the last eight years. This is contrary to some of President Obama’s campaign promises to reduce or repeal most or all of the Patriot Act during his term of office.

Snowden recognizes his own bias about how the information he leaked to the press should be released to the public. He explains that is why he chose to contact Poitras, who had done two other documentaries about America post-911, and Greenwald of the United Kingdom’s The Guardian to break the story to the public.

It is obvious that Snowden believes that releasing the classified documents is more important than his own life or freedom since Snowden is currently being sought after by the U.S. Department of Justice under the 1917 Espionage Act.

Even a team of lawyers that gather at one point in the film to defend his actions in court have to concede that under the Espionage Act, even if they were to prove wrongdoing on the part of the NSA and the U.S. government, even if he did in fact uncover serious wrongdoing on the part of the U.S. against its own citizens, Snowden would still be prosecuted as a spy.

In case you think Snowden to be a whiny millennial whistleblower, consider also that Poitras interviews and follows William Binney, a famed NSA analyst during the Cold War, who days after 9-11 was brought in by the NSA to begin the process of what is called “piggybacking” onto communication companies like AT&T.

As Binney set up the infrastructure to spy on customers of major U.S. phone companies, he “Naively tried to get lawmakers and the courts to have some sort of internal oversight into what we were doing.” says Binney. He soon realized he was talking to deaf ears and left his work with the NSA. When Binney began to speak out in public about the programs he was raided with guns drawn. “I still can’t believe they did that.”, Binney said, of the raids.

CitizenFour has already taken home Best Documentary from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) and can be seen on HBO starting Feb. 23rd, the day after the Oscars. It will also be available on iTunes. If you do decide to watch it in the privacy of your own home, be forewarned... Nowadays, you just never know who is watching the watchers.

 

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